Pursuit of Viarsa 1 nears end

Aug 26, 2003
Author: P&S

The three week drama involving the Uruguayan-flagged fishing vessel Viarsa 1 appears to be nearing a fairly dramatic end, with the fishing vessel firmly boxed in and expected to be under arrest by this time tomorrow (Wednesday). The sudden end to the drama came yesterday with the arrival of one of the most powerful tugs afloat, which appeared suddenly and unexpectedly (for the Uruguayan ship) over the horizon, thus tipping the balance in favour of the pursuing ships.

The saga began on 7 August when the Australian fisheries patrol ship Southern Supporter discovered the Spanish-crewed Viarsa 1 fishing illegally in Australian waters around Heard and MacDonald Islands in the Southern Indian Ocean. When the Uruguayan vessel refused to be boarded for inspection or to head for an Australian port as ordered, the long chase began, with the fishing vessel fleeing westwards with the Australian ship in hot pursuit across one of the world’s coldest and most inhospitable oceans.

At this time appeals were made to other countries to assist by refusing refuge to the fleeing ship, and a call was made to South African authorities to render similar assistance to that given in 2001 with the interception and arrest of another fleeing poacher, the vessel South Tomi.

On that occasion two South African Navy vessels took part in assisting the Australian fisheries patrol ship, but this time it was the South African Antarctic supply ship SA Agulhas whose help was offered. SA Agulhas was in the vicinity delivering building materials to the South African weather station on Marion Island, which lies in the path taken by the fishing vessel.

However SA Agulhas was delayed by bad weather at Marion Island during which time the wanted ship had fled south into loose ice and eventually moved west of Marion Island, leaving SA Agulhas to make full speed in order to catch up.

What was kept a secret however was that a third ship was joining the chase. The salvage tug John Ross, which was assisting with salvage attempts on the grounded container ship Sealand Express in Table Bay, was released last Friday to head south on an interception course. The salvage tug caught up with Southern Supporter yesterday (Monday), which had been keeping Viarsa 1 in sight for several days without being able to come close enough to effect a boarding.

Rough seas have so far prevented any attempt from John Ross to board the ship and it is now expected that either rubber inflatables from the Australian ship, or a helicopter from SA Agulhas, which is now also on the scene, will be used to land security officers on board Viarsa 1 to make the arrest.

Personnel making the arrest are described as being fully trained for the job and no problems are anticipated, say officials. After the ship is in Australian hands she will most likely head for Cape Town, bringing to an end what became the world’s longest maritime chase of modern times.

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